I was paired up with Ashanti when I joined the CEO of McKinsey & Company and a team of their partners in the South Bronx to do a 36 Hour Immersion with our students. Each of us “adults” were paired up with a buildOn student who became our mentor. Ashanti was my mentor for those 36 Hours, and she still is.
During our icebreakers that day, I asked Ashanti why she joined buildOn and she explained that she likes doing service but started doing it long before she joined buildOn. “This goes back to when I was a little kid,” she told me. I asked her what kind of service she liked to do and she said that she used to get $5 from her mother to go down to the street to get a sandwich for lunch. “But instead of eating the sandwich, I’d give it to the homeless people living on the street. I’d talk with them for hours sometimes. I love it,” she explained.
Ashanti serves meals to the homeless in her neighborhood with buildOn, a practice she started when she was just a little girl.
I asked what she would talk about for so long and Ashanti told me that she would usually start by asking them why they were homeless and then they’d tell her their whole life story. I was blown away by her innocence and candor.
Then I asked Ashanti how she felt when she shared her food with homeless people and then hung out and talked with them for so long. She looked me in the eye, smiled and said, “I felt like a window in my heart opened up and all this light came flooding out.”
The beauty of her metaphor started to sink in. It was profound. I was suspended in the moment and could feel tears welling up.
I asked, “How old were you when you started doing this?”
“I don’t know, six or seven. Something like that,” she said.
“You were only six or seven years old! Really?”
“Yes,” she said.
“How do you think the homeless people felt when they shared their stories with you?”
She smiled again. “Oh, that’s when they open up the window in their hearts and all their light comes flooding out.”
Ashanti not only helps the homeless in her South Bronx neighborhood, she’s also mentoring the next generation of community leaders.
Later on, I asked Ashanti if she ever writes poetry and she answered, “Yes, lots.”
“One or two poems every week?”
“No,” she replied. “I write one or two poems every day.”
I asked if she would share some of her work with me. This is the first poem that Ashanti sent me.
I want to grow to be a birch tree
A tree representing youth
A tree representing equality
The new dawning
A start with no war or fighting
The beginning I have always been dreaming
But would it last?
With all hate and negativity
People’s gluttony and brutality
Will this tree endure so much misery?
Will it be crushed by people’s malevolence?
Or will it be flooded by people’s judgment?
Even through all of the pain…
I believe this tree will stay unyielding
I believe society will change
And there will be no gun-wielding
People will love and stay strong
For thousands of years long
This little tree will revolutionize
Into a forest of Hope.
Jim Ziolkowski is the best-selling author of Walk in Their Shoes and the Founder, President and CEO of buildOn. Ashanti Champagne is a sophomore at the School for Tourism and Hospitality in the Bronx. She has served more than 300 hours in her community and will be building a school in Haiti with buildOn this summer.